Readers Write In #196: Cinephilic Meltdown: Peeping Tom

Posted on May 30, 2020


(by Anand Sudha)

It’s strange how a film devoid of blood-splattered gore and pornographic cheap thrills evoked so much moral condemnation upon release, a reaction all the more surprising since the film came on the heels of Hitchcock’s Psycho, which was arguably more graphic and shocking. Even the subsequent films from that decade, with all their aestheticized violence, although reviled, didn’t provoke such an outrageously puritanical response, with one reviewer even saying, “But nothing, nothing, nothing—neither the hopeless leper colonies of East Pakistan, the back streets of Bombay, nor the gutters of Calcutta—has left me with such a feeling of nausea and depression as I got this week sitting through a new British film called Peeping Tom.” The condescension towards Asian countries aside, what made Peeping Tom appear so repugnant to these snooty London critics?

Compared to Hitchcock’s films on voyeurism, an illustrious list that includes Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho (not on the level of the other two but still engaging), Michael Powell is far more blatant in his confrontation. Hitchcock’s assured command over his audience leads them to be swept away by his films’ rhythms, forgetting ethical and moral quandaries while being immersed thoroughly in the thrilling machinations of the characters. This, of course, is among the films’ greatest strengths, allowing a critique of voyeurism to silently coexist with engaging suspense. Powell doesn’t possess Hitchcock’s hypnotic control, and for this film, he doesn’t need it. The sheer luridness of his camera angles and garish colours implicate our voyeuristic obsessions far more strongly, arguably disturbing us even more than Psycho. The moral condemnation probably stemmed from the critics being appalled at seeing the perverse morbidity of cinephilia being confronted so brazenly on screen, rejoindering with raucous puritanical denialism instead of actually interrogating themselves.

Mark, the scoptophilic serial-killer of the film’s title, films his gruesome murders of women to study and document fear on film. As Jim Hoberman aptly notes in his review, Mark “oscillates between shy and seductive, swishy and controlling; his impulse control is tenuous”. This unhinged awkwardness, accentuated by the strange cadences of the German actor playing Mark, Karlheinz Böhm, makes Mark appear less as the demonic unrelenting force of modern psychological horror films, but as someone perversely human, even deserving of our sympathies. Our sympathetic stance is further compounded by the presence of a grotesque love-interest, Helen, who functions as an audience surrogate and cinematic counterpoint to Mark.

After spotting Mark creepily spying on her 21st birthday party, Helen’s piqued curiosity goads him to show her some of his films, nearly oblivious to her boisterous intrusiveness not too dissimilar from the silent mandates of the lurking audience. Mark screens the camera experiments of his father, drawing Helen’s outright denouncement of his father while still prodding him for more details. Helen’s denouncement of Mark’s father provides an “explanation” for his uncontrollable ‘urges’ and a pantomime villain to direct our ire upon, and the heightened luridness of the sequence through the sudden blaring of the discordant piano chords, Helen’s wide-eyed squirms and the father’s stern reprimands appear to even confirm this, cocooning us in our disavowal of moral responsibility.

The mad-scientist psychological experiments of Mark’s father, tyrannical derangements wrought by a certain kind of twistedness exclusive to the camera, are indicative of the abusive violations that cinema itself is predicated on. This critique finds its extension even in the cinema set where Mark works on, although a lot more buffoonish. Stale satirical pieces of fussily untalented, yet pretty actresses and clownish directors aside, Powell implicates the whole lot
of them, saving his biggest vitriol for the producer, who forces his actors to work even after a shock, conceding only to the presence of a psychiatrist on the set to give a veneer of concern. After the actress faints, the psychiatrist responds with a maniacal grin (Powell must have had wacky shrinks), saying that the only solution is rest, much to the chagrin of the producer. Powell, well aware of his own profession, doesn’t spare himself either, implicating himself in the proceedings by casting himself as Mark’s father. This autocritique might cast all moral responsibility on the director, but as Powell makes clear throughout the film, the cinephile is no innocent puppy.

Mark’s murders are viewed through the confining grid of his 16 mm camera, not through an ‘objective’ lens (heh heh), incriminating our voyeuristic obsession by tethering us to him. Helen might represent a more benign aspect of voyeurism, serving as our surrogate, but Powell’s immersive subjectivity, especially during scenes of horror, shows the nightmarish manifestation of our voyeuristic prodding. Mark might be the result of his upbringing, but the magnitude of his crimes is exacerbated by the Helens of the world.

A bizarre amalgamation of cinephile, director and subject, Mark’s horrifying traumatization only emboldens him to expand his father’s studies on fear further, only this time, the sex is inverted. A precursor to the analyses of the male gaze, Mark’s modus operandi intrinsically includes a critique of Powell’s (and sadly, even our) contemporary cinema, not just through his selection of victims, but also through their constant objectification which sits at the heart of our violative experimentation, tinged with a fear of female sexuality. Mark’s dabbling in the porn industry extends this critique, with the invention of the camera encouraging our objectifying perversions to run amok. Powell doesn’t spare the viewer in this critique either, dedicating a comical scene to a ‘respectable’ old man rambling in euphemisms to sleazily acquire some nude pictures. The camera merely provides the vision for our darkest fantasies dictated by heteronormative values to flourish.

As a director, Mark (and Powell) duly indulge the viewer with genre requisites. Mark’s “documentary” on the crystallization of (female) “fear” is interspersed with a police procedural recorded diligently by Mark. The genre tropes are all apparent, but they acquire an eerie meaning when the viewpoint is reversed, imbuing the viewer with a sense of moral dread by interrogating our visceral pleasures from cheap thrills fuelled by our intrusive inquisitiveness. Mark is also a perfectionist, killing more women until he gets the perfect evocation of fear. Powell shatters any positive connotations associated with perfection, even positing that ‘perfection’ might be predicated on abuse. The act of film-going and filmmaking is laden with exploitative horrors, left unexplored by our candied denial.

To confront our denial further, Powell resorts to the film’s contrapuntal surrogate once again. Helen, inspired by the camera’s certifiable child, writes a fairy tale about a boy with a magic camera, effacing the story’s darker origins. The grotesque underpinnings of fairy tales are well known to Powell, but he takes his critique a bit deeper by busting the joyful myths of filmmaking itself promulgated by films where the ugliest aspect of the filmmaking was the crowd-pleasing self-absorption of the director. Powell isn’t saying that filmmaking is devoid of such joys, but by merely thrusting its dark side on to the seemingly unsuspecting viewer, it shatters such dazzling myths by forcing us to confront the very core behind the creation of such myths – our disavowal of responsibility.

In terms of its societal, technological and cultural psychopathology, Peeping Tom is perhaps only rivalled by JG Ballard’s (and Cronenberg’s) Crash. I don’t know if Ballard actually watched Peeping Tom, but it, among its other illustrious predations, also foreshadows Ballard’s own fetishistic preoccupations. In an astonishingly startling scene, Mark is instantly drawn to the bruises of a model, with his wide eyes attaining an animalistic focus, a scene which might find a home in Ballard’s Crash, without the camp, of course. The postmodernist fetishization of the image also finds its echoes in Peeping Tom where Mark kisses his camera after being kissed by Helen.

Powell maintained that the French title of the film should have been Le Cineaste instead of Le Voyeur, and this perhaps succinctly explains why the horrors of Peeping Tom eerily linger despite the lack of any explicit gore. Peeping Tom is unsparing in its implications of both the viewer and the director, thereby ensuring that cinephilia will never be the same again.